Remembering Palestinian Refugees on World Refugee Day 2018

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A Palestinian refugee holds up the key to their house in Palestine.

A Palestinian refugee, whose family has lived in Lebanon since 1948, holds up the key to their house in Palestine.

Memories are a refugee’s treasure – memories of the sights and sounds of the homes they were forced to flee months, years, decades ago. The perfume of flowers from the garden or the aroma of spices in the market evoke fond memories of a happier life abandoned as families escaped war and destruction with little more than the clothing on their backs. For many Palestinian refugees, the over-sized, rusty key to their ancestral homes is a prized possession that is handed from one generation to the next.

Today we pay tribute to 70 years of memories of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants around the globe. The 1948 war that created Israel displaced 700,000 Palestinians [source: UNWRA]. Later, the 1967 conflict sent hundreds of thousands more from their homes to seek refuge in temporary tent villages or with relatives far from home.

The tents are gone. In their place, Palestinian refugee families make do in ramshackle cement structures in 59 refugee camps scattered around Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The 12 camps in Lebanon are decrepit towns of tenement structures separated by dark, narrow alleyways filled with debris, leaky pipes and tangled webs of wires hanging overhead. In such close quarters privacy is an elusive dream.

Shatila camp in Lebanon is “home” to 27,000 Palestinian and Syrian refugees.

Elsewhere in the region, Gaza often has been labeled an open-air prison. Since the blockade began 11 years ago, Palestinians cannot leave or enter without permits, which are nearly impossible to obtain.   

In recent months, simmering anger over closed borders and broken dreams of home sent hundreds of Palestinians to protest along the separation wall with Israel. The violence that ensued underscored Gaza’s suffering. Restricted movement in and out of Gaza has translated into shortages of basic foodstuffs and medical supplies, the separation of families and overall conditions the United Nations has described as unlivable.

Jabalia camp, for instance, is about 1.4 square kilometers and is home to more than 100,000. It is considered one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Jabalia’s open air market is one of the largest in the Gaza Strip but few can afford to buy what’s on display. Unemployment is nearly 50% and few are allowed to leave the area to find work or even medical aid for chronic or life-threatening ailments.

Ironically, many of the camp elders are living only a few kilometers from homes they were forced to flee and have probably never seen again. Youngsters growing up in Gaza see despair and dream of making their own memories far from home.

Palestinian girl near her home in Gaza's Jabalya refugee camp.

Palestinian girl near her home in Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp.

What visitors remember most when they travel to these refugee communities is the underlying strength and resilience of the men, women and children who have learned to do much with so little. Despite all the obstacles they face, they continue to strive for a better future and better memories for their children. 

Images From 3 Palestinian Refugee Camps

Nahr El Bared Palestinian Refugee Camp, Lebanon

Sobheya holds up her radishes that she carefully cultivated in the garden Anera installed in her Nahr El Bared community.

For many Palestinian families, land is everything—memories of more prosperous times, security for the future, family stability. In crowded refugee camps in Lebanon, a shared patch of land or planter garden is a source of sustenance, revenue and pleasure. In Nahr El Bared, where Anera helped to install a communal gardenOm Maher, one of the gardeners, hopes the produce she grow will help feed her four sons and their families. “The garden gives peace and provides a beautiful space,” says Om Maher, “I encourage all my neighbors to do the same. It helps save money and at the same time it is a great physical activity for me.”

Qalandia Palestinian Refugee Camp, West Bank

A kindergarten boy in Qalandia refugee camp, West Bank.

Education is also integral to building a better future for Palestinian children, who cannot forget the conflict and suffering around them. The proximity of the over-crowded Qalandia refugee camp to an often volatile Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank casts a shadow of gloom over life there. But Anera’s groundbreaking early childhood development program built a preschool there that provides a safe and vibrant learning experience for the camp children and a healthy start for a future generation of Palestinians.

El Bureij Palestinian Refugee Camp, Gaza

The women in the Gaza co-op use a kitchen supplied and equipped by Anera.

In Gaza, where jobs are scarce, Anera supports women’s cooperatives, like the one in the heart of the El Bureij refugee camp, so entrepreneurs can band together to reduce their overhead costs. The result is they have nearly tripled their monthly income. Aziza, one of the members, wants to bring her work to the next level: “We are planning to open a production line to provide nutritious meals to preschoolers. We’ll also make pickles and strawberry jam.”



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